Dear sherry-lovers, wine enthusiasts, members of the trade and press, LCBO and government officials, listen up. There is a problem with sherry. Or rather, with the way we get sherry into our market. And I would like you to pay attention.
One look at the sherry category at the LCBO and a couple of things become clear:
1. There is a lot of “sweet” sherry (Harvey’s Bristol Cream, Dry Sack are (by far) the largest brands), 2. The prices are generally always below $20 and often below $15 and 3. We hardly ever see sherries at “higher” prices or with age statements (VOS, VORS; 20 year old or 30 year old) or, in other words, the really good stuff.
The relative value of sherry is indisputable. There is a reason, however, why we don’t see any “higher end”, rare, older or unique sherries all that often. First, and foremost the LCBO will argue, the market for those products simply does not exist or is too small. While I am starting to see a different picture emerge, in cities like New York and London, and even slowly in Toronto, by and large the LCBO is right. But what comes first? How can there be a market if the product is never available?
Another, maybe more important, reason for not seeing these sherries here (on store shelves, but also in restaurants through consignment or private stock) is this: our reputation precedes us. Sherry producers, a relatively small group, know of the LCBO and the difficulties of getting in the market. And a large part has to do with our laboratory analysis procedures. Not just the cost involved ($175, soon to go up to $200 per sku per vintage, not a small amount on any order), but the stringency of the rules and the way which they are enforced. Most producers simply don’t want to ship their rare and expensive sherries here only to see them languish in the lab, subjected to fees and, in worst cases, see them destroyed because of failed lab analysis. This is a rare occurrence, but it has happened – suppliers have the option of having the goods returned to them, at their cost. Why take the chance?
And for us agents it’s the same. Why should we spend our time navigating the rules, dealing with the lab, not to mention the small margins on products like this. We simply won’t bother. And therefore you, the consumers, lose.
But shouldn’t it be about choice? Consumers should at least have the opportunity to try these wines and decide for themselves whether they want to buy them or not. Let the market decide if there is a market.
As with all food-stuffs, wine is subject to a large set of regulations and chemical thresholds as set by the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) with the ultimate goal of keeping us all safe and healthy. Each province enforces these regulations in their own way. For us in Ontario, we know that the LCBO takes its job very seriously and tests a bottle of every single wine, sherry or spirit once it arrives.
What is exactly the problem with older sherries? It is twofold: due to the very nature of the product, the aging in very old casks in a solera system where small amounts of wine from every single vintage are present in the final wine. Old sherries are in fact very old. VOS (20 years) and VORS (30 years) are at least as old as the classification states. But some sherries are even older than that. Evaporation of mainly water, quite high in Jerez (in some cases as high as 5 or 6% per year), concentrates all compounds in the wine, not just alcohol or volatile acidity, also the potential “harmful ones”. Secondly, producers like Equipo Navazos and Bodegas Tradicion (and several others) will not subject their wines to aggressive filtration and clarification, believing that with the bad you take out the good. The idea is to preserve the authenticity, to show the sherry as it exists in the cask.
The most worrisome of these chemicals, the one that causes the most concern in terms of exceeding the stated limits, is ethyl carbamate. Ethyl carbamate, sometimes referred to as urethane, is a chemical compound that forms from the reaction of alcohol with urea, a compound formed by the metabolism of certain organic compounds by yeasts. Urea has been commercially produced for use in fertilizers. Products obtained by ways of fermentation, such as alcoholic beverages but also breads and soy products contain traces of ethyl carbamate. Studies have shown that ethyl carbamate is “probably carcinogenic to humans”. This is where the problem lies. But I am not a bio-chemist. It is not my purpose to explain exactly what ethyl carbamate is or where it comes from or how it ends up in sherry.
The crux of the matter is what level is a safe level and when it goes over that threshold what happens? Since I am also not a health professional, I can only use logic and go by communication I’ve had with CFIA specialists in addition to anecdotal evidence. It seems that, by any standard, exposure from consuming sherry at a “normal rate” is not harmful. One would need to drink extreme amounts of sherry to be effected by the ethyl carbamate. Likely, one would succumb to alcohol poisoning before that. Different threshold levels exist for ethyl carbamate in different categories of alcohol. For instance, the limit for saké is twice that of sherry and four times for fruit spirits, presumably based on the (flawed) logic that the stronger the beverage, the less one would consume at any given time.
I am happy I am protected by a government that looks after my safety. The problem with limits is that they are often arbitrarily set (in the past) and don’t necessarily reflect what goes on in the real world anymore. So while my sherries are routinely flagged and stopped at the lab for levels exceeding the guidelines, not just of ethyl carbamate but also sometimes copper, it seems the rest of the world can freely enjoy these products, and be no worse for wear.
It seems it would be very hard to prove if any particular illness is associated to over-consumption of sherry due to extreme exposure to ethyl carbamate or copper. I have found no documented cases of any incidences of ethyl carbamate poisoning. I also have found no standards for ethyl carbamate in sherry or fortified wine in other markets such as the US, the UK or the EU. I have spoken to suppliers and agents in these markets and none have ever experienced problems importing or selling sherries due to regulations on ethyl carbamate. And in Alberta or BC, sherries seem to freely enter the market, even though they are governed by the same federal guidelines of the CFIA.
While I have to point out that there is an exception level for “rare sherries” that exceed a certain price and are imported in less than 200 cases per year, it still presents a huge barrier. Many producers and agents simply won’t bother. The LCBO, and CFIA, have granted exception to sherries that fit within this exemption category, but every time we have to go through the same process. Add another compound that exceeds a threshold, like copper for instance, and you really do have a problem. The CFIA has a really clinical way of looking at it: since most sherries in the market currently have ethyl carbamate levels below the threshold, it is therefore reasonable to say that all sherries could have ethyl carbamate below the threshold. A very simplistic way of looking at it indeed. Since the rare, older sherries hardly ever get imported, and the sherries that do are younger, filtered and clarified products, we are comparing apples and oranges. Like wine, or any other product, not all sherries are created equal.
These sherries are produced by bodegas of the highest repute (for instance Equipo Navazos, Bodegas Tradicion, Gonzalez-Byass, Lustau and others). Some have been around for over a hundred years and their products are sold in many countries without any problems. It’s not like they were produced using a dodgy process in somebody’s shed with suspect equipment. These are historical products with a real pedigree and a following. Can we please make these rules a little more relaxed and use them in the right spirit – pun intended?
While I’d like to keep bringing in these sherries and keep challenging the rules, I hope consumers and other agents will feel comfortable communicating their interest in these special, unique products. We Ontarians shouldn’t be excluded up front from experiencing these fine wines simply because a certain rule sets the bar too high.
I am not suggesting such standards shouldn’t exist. I am not even suggesting we shouldn’t test. But can’t we be more open-minded and pick our battles? Is the CFIA really suggesting that sherries with age are bad for us? That we can’t be allowed to drink them?
We should be safe, but must we be coddled?
Set my Sherry free.